Ministers’ “routine” use of the veto to keep cabinet discussions secret threatens to undermine the public’s right to know about crucial decisions such as those leading up to war in Iraq, the Information Commissioner warned today.
In a report laid before Parliament, Christopher Graham criticised the Attorney General’s block on the publication of Cabinet minutes leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
It is the fifth time that successive governments have blocked the release of information – twice over Iraq and devolution and once over the publication of the risk register on NHS reforms.
In July Dominic Grieve QC repeated a 2009 ruling made by then Justice Secretary Jack Straw that the papers should be kept secret for 30 years despite demands from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and a tribunal decision to make them public following a Freedom of Information request.
Mr Grieve, who made his decision after consulting Labour, concluded it was in the public interest not to reveal what had been discussed and to preserve Cabinet confidentiality in what he described as “exceptional” circumstances.
But Mr Graham, who protects the public’s rights over data and privacy, said that because of the continuing interest in the decision to go to war the public interest was “particularly great” not least after the Chilcott inquiry and the publication of various memoirs touching on the subject. He said it had implications beyond Iraq.
“If the veto continues to be routinely exercised whenever the ICO does order the disclosure of Cabinet minutes, particularly when significant time has passed since the decision was made, then it is hard to imagine how freedom of information can ever be used to secure the release of even the most significant proceedings of the Cabinet,” he said.
Maurice Frankel director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information welcomed the Commissioner’s report.
He said there was legitimate public interest in the publication of the minutes which revealed what was now known to be only a minimum of discussion over the legality or otherwise of waging war.
“I don’t think the present Government has any interest in preventing criticism of the previous government. What they are trying to protect here is the principle of not letting the public get too close to the cabinet table.
“The present Government is thinking about the next requests coming down the line rather than what would be revealed about Iraq,” he said.
Cabinet papers are not normally published until 30 years later although this period of time is set to be reduced to two decades.
Campaigners say since the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act in 2005 only limited details of Cabinet discussions have emerged.
Tony Blair, who introduced the legislation and led Cabinet discussions over Iraq, was recently criticised for failing to give evidence before MPs on his change of views on the openness legislation.
In his memoir A Journey the former Prime Minister wrote: “Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them and feel like shaking my head til it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naïve, foolish irresponsible nincompoop … I quake at the imbecility of it.”
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “The Government is committed to openness and transparency. Since the Act came into force in 2005 central government has released an enormous amount of information in response to FOI requests. However, the Government also firmly believes in the importance of preserving the convention of collective Cabinet responsibility. It is of vital importance that we protect the confidential space in which Cabinet (and Cabinet committee) members can discuss and debate important issues, so that the decisions they arrive at are fully informed."